Black Panther is a timely warning against exceptionalism

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Black Panther
Opens February 16, wide

3.5 out of 5

I’m always happy when Marvel Studios lets a filmmaker’s idiosyncrasies seep into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU’s best  efforts are the ones with a voice: Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok; James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy and the Russo brothers’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier come to mind. We can only imagine what Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man could have been — alas, Wright had to leave that production over “creative differences”.

Black Panther benefits extraordinarily from having Ryan Coogler at the helm. Coogler is devoted to bringing the African-American experience to the big screen (Fruitvale Station, Creed), and his influence turns an average MCU story into an indictment of isolationism, linking it to radicalization. All this and fun and gorgeous, too!

This is an MCU movie (#18, to be exact) so there are returning characters. We met the gruff Prince T’Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), back in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. Following his father’s death in that movie, T’Challa returns to rule his African country, the technological superpower Wakanda. But he’s ambivalent towards becoming king  as his inner circle pulls him in opposite directions. Some want him to open Wakanda to the world and share its wealth and technology, while others want him to focus on his people and keep the country hidden. Like, literally hidden from the rest of the world.

A familiar enemy arrives to rain on T’Challa’s already moistened parade. Arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, au naturel, reprising his role from Avengers: Age Of Ultron) comes into possession of a bunch of vibranium — the super-metal that’s the source of Wakanda’s wealth — and plans to sell it to the highest bidder and likely blow the secretive nation’s cover in the process. As dire as the situation is, a worse one begins to take shape in the form of the unfortunately named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, Chronicle, The Wire, um, Fantastic Four), a black-ops soldier with big plans for Wakanda.

The best villains think they’re in the right and use rational arguments to justify their actions. Killmonger’s beef is with the treatment of underprivileged youth in the U.S. (fair) and he resents Wakanda’s refusal to support revolutionary movements (not unreasonable). Killmonger wasn’t indoctrinated but he’s seen enough injustice to become radicalized.

None of these heavy themes makes Black Panther a downer even for a second. In fact, they’re great for stakes. Aside from the technology, this could be Marvel’s most rooted-in-the-real-world movie. The first mission even pits T’Challa against a Boko Haram-like guerilla.

Boseman has a different style than the MCU’s other, mostly smart-alecky heroes. His T’Challa has gravitas and embodies the saying “heavy is the head that wears the crown”. He’s not humorless, just thoughtful. Boseman’s supported by an extraordinary African-American cast in which the women are in command: Danai Gurira (Michonne in The Walking Dead) makes an impression as Oyoke, T’Challa’s right hand. Lupita Nyong’o finally gets a good role as Nakia, T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend whose calling (helping Africa’s oppressed) puts her at odds with the love of her life. There’s also Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya… it’s an embarrassment of acting riches.

One of the best characters, though, is the setting. Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Oscar nominated for Mudbound) create a spectacular Wakanda. Afrofuturism comes alive in a seamless combination of actual cultural elements and science fiction. Even the fantastic technology has an African twist. It’s all a sight to behold.

Not everything in Black Panther works: pivotal relationships are underdeveloped (Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya are supposed to be lovers but they act like remote acquaintances) and Killmonger’s endgame feels undercooked, particularly compared to the rest of his plan. I can’t shake the impression a longer cut could have resolved these shortcomings. Then again, it’s already 134 minutes.

Wakanda may not exist, but Africa is very much at the heart of the Black Panther. I’m looking forward to my next visit.